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Structure of the Spinal Cord

Contents

Anatomy

The Spinal Cord consists of various regions of grey and white matter that in turn carry specific cell groups and nuclei depending on the vertebral level. This matter houses the ascending and descending tracts of the spinal cord that govern movement, the senses and autonomic functions. The spinal column is the spinal cord in its entirety, including its hard exterior vertebrae and softer inner sheaths of cerebrospinal fluid and dura mater. This article will explain each area of the spinal cord, grouped by vertebrae, so that the keen anatomist can recognize the vast differences between each section of the peripheral nervous system.

Structure of spinal cord
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Full structure of the spinal cord seen from a dorsal view.

Pathway

The cervical region of the spinal cord is oval in shape and consists of white matter, an anterior grey column and a posterior grey column.

  • The white matter is made up of the fasciculus cuneatus and the fasciculus gracilis.
  • The anterior grey column contains a medial cell group that is for the muscles of the neck, a central group of cells that transmit information from the accessory nucleus through the cervical spinal nerves C1 to C5 as well as the phrenic nucleus that also utilizes the cervical spinal nerves C3 to C5 and a lateral cell group that controls the musculature of the upper limb.
  • The posterior grey column contains the substantia gelatinosa, which is continuous with the spinal nucleus of the trigeminal nerve (CN V) at the level of the cervical vertebrae C2 and it also contains the nucleus proprius. The nucleus dorsalis, otherwise known as clarke’s column is absent.
  • The lateral grey column is absent.

The thoracic region of the spinal cord is round in shape and consists of white matter, an anterior grey column, a posterior grey column and a lateral grey column.

  • The white matter includes the fasciculus cuneatus from the thoracic vertebrae T1 to T6 and the fasciculus gracilis.
  • The anterior grey column contains a medial group of cells that correspond to the trunk muscles.
  • The posterior grey column contains the substantia gelatinosa, the nucleus proprius, the nucleus dorsalis, otherwise known as Clarke’s column and the visceral afferent nucleus.
  • The lateral grey column exists and from it emerge the preganglionic sympathetic fibers.

The lumbar region of the spinal cord is round to oval in shape and consists of white matter, an anterior grey column, a posterior grey column and a lateral grey column.

  • The white matter consists only of the fasciculus gracilis, for the fasciculus cuneatus is absent.
  • The anterior grey column includes a medial group of cells and a central group of cells. The pathway for the function of the musculature of the lower limb and cells for the lumbosacral nerve are within these cell groups respectively.
  • The posterior grey column houses the substantia gelatinosa, the nucleus proprius, Clarke’s column or the nucleus dorsalis between the lumbar vertebrae L1 to L4 and the visceral afferent nucleus.
  • The lateral grey column exists between the lumbar vertebrae L1 to L2 and sometimes L3 and contributes the preganglionic sympathetic fibers.

The sacral region of the spinal cord is round in shape and consists of white matter, the anterior grey column and the posterior grey column.

  • The white matter is only a small amount comprising of only the fasciculus gracilis, without the fasciculus cuneatus.
  • The anterior grey column holds a medial cells group which is responsible for the musculature of the lower limb and the perineal area.
  • The posterior grey column is shared by the substantia gelatinosa and the nucleus proprius.
  • The lateral grey column is absent, however at the level of sacral vertebrae S2 to S4 there are some cells dedicated to parasympathetic outflow.
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Show references

Reference:

  • Richard S. Snell, Clinical Neuroanatomy, Seventh Edition, Wolters Kluwer: Lippincott-Williams and Wilkins, Chapter 4, Table 4-1.

Author:

  • Dr. Alexandra Sierosławska

Illustrators:

  • Spinal cord - Yousun Koh 
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